Noah and Rosalee play two of the main characters in Underground. As the story develops, Noah becomes a slave who wants to lead his people to freedom. However, he didn't think he would fall deeply in love with a house slave named Rosalee. Here, they talk about how their on-screen relationship brought new life to the project.
Aldis Hodge (Noah): “It’s a beautiful thing that we were able to find a genuine friendship, off set, because that just multiplied what we did on set. The whole cast really, we all became like a family. We all had to lean on each other throughout the project. I think to a degree we would influence each other during filming. There’s no streamline to each character, we all had twists and curves. Every time you think we were going to do something, we did something else. My character makes some choices in the script that really made me explore who he really is.
After reading the script initially, it really spoke to me as something that could help me grown as a man. A successful man, not financially but just as a successful human being. And the script just spoke to me so well because Noah has traits that I respect as an individual. If I can play someone I respect it’s just like icing on the cake for me because I’ll always respect this work.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Rosalee): "Our friendships created an environment of trust. From the top down -- the writers, the director and the whole crew. That level of trust just created a creative environment where we were able to let go.
Underground, I think, stretched us all as actors and helped us go past what we thought were our limits. Misha and Joe just gave us these scripts that surprised us every time. It’s just a project that made us want to grow as actors."
We would have to mentally prepare for certain scenes were there’s violence. But its not until yuou hear the crack of the whip, where you understand how devastating it is. But there was a time where I just balled and the cast surrounded me afterwards. I went home and called my mom honestly because I just didn’t know what to do with that emotion. But the beauty of this script is that we get to help bring these real characters to audiences and humanize them as best as we could."
Director Anthony Hemingway was an integral part in bringing Underground to life. Here, he speaks on what it meant for him to direct such a powerful series.
Anthony Hemingway (Director): “As the director one of the first things I wanted to do with Underground – being that it’s really a story that hasn’t been told – I wanted to figure out a way to entertain and defy what anyone watching this with preconceived thoughts would think. I wanted to challenge viewers and tap into the revolution that we wanted to present. We brought humanity to these slaves, and we just wanted be bold and daring about it.
I wanted to find moving visual stimulation to elevate what the narrative is -- and really play in the dichotomy of extremes that the script has. I wanted to find a way to create a new angles and voices into this world, and by doing that I took risks. We just tried to find the vibrance that speaks to the hope that this story has in an inventive way. There’s so many complexities that we haven’t experienced in these slave stories.”
I’m hoping Underground becomes yet another blueprint that demonstrates how we can overcome together. It’s an integrative fight. You can’t be afraid, and you have to be fearless. That was the inspiration that we all had to carry during the filming. I wanted everyone to let go and raise the stakes. Let’s think outside of the box and be aggressive. That was our vibe throughout.
From my first read of the script I was hooked. And we just continued to give it nuances with the casting. It really didn’t depart from the original script. Misha and Joe are beasts. They really did the job of creating a canvas that we can live it. We wanted audiences to live in Underground.
I want people to realize that the message is for people to know that they have to come together. Let’s take our issues and come together and unite to solve. Let’s lose this “crabs in the barrel” mentality. It takes a village to overcome. And I think we need to as a people today, so I think we need to rise up!"
Elizabeth and Cato couldn't be more different. As an abolitionist, Liz must keep her work under cover while Cato comes off as ruthless slave-driver. However, viewers will see that each character is not who they may seem to be. Here, they discuss the difficulty of bringing each character into the viewers' world.
Jessica De Gouw (Elizabeth): The scenes aren’t gentle, and there were consistently emotionally charged scenes that shook us all up. We couldn’t let any character off easy. Everybody had to bring out different sides to their characters.
There’s something in each cast member for everybody I think. I personally enjoy watching all types of characters, and I find something in everybody I can relate to. It’s about the selflessness in the end. Who do you live for and why?
I had to work on getting into my role with different emotions almost every day. I think each of our goals was to start conversation amongst readers. Also, it puts a face to characters and shows their many sides. Each person is torn in different ways."
Alano Miller (Cato): "I have to be honest with you, I was really nervous when I got this script. Cato was just such a big character in my own mind. Not only on the screen, but to the rest of the world, and whoever is going to be watching this. I was a little hesitant but I had to have some courage and go in other directions to take on the role. I fought hard to say that Cato was more than just a villain. I think those are the types of character people want to eventually root for. I was really afraid ahead of time because I needed to show some redeeming qualities about Cato.
It takes two hours to put on the make-up and two hours to take off, so it’s an intense transformation. When I first put it on, the character wasn’t born until I put on the vest and the hat to me. That’s when it clicked. But it was hard to get rid of the character at times. At the same time, there are so many twists and turns because the viewers have no idea where the story is going. We have to finally face our history and have a real conversation about it, and hopefully this does that. We want to inspire, edify, and jab you in your heart."
Both Alphas in their own right, Ernestine and August have lot of responsibilities on both their shoulders. Though, they are after different things in life -- they share a deep connection that may shock viewers. Here, the stars discuss the importance of Underground to American television.
Amirah Vann (Ernestine): “I have some very strong women in my life, and I’m sure in a way some of their characteristics came out in Ernestine without me trying to do so. What was exciting to me was realizing that I can tell the story of this dynamic, sexy woman and not be one dimensional about it. I think on an ideal day there’s a balance of the script and the personal things we add to each character. You read simple “kitchen scenes” on the page and figure out how to add that truly personal touch to the character. And we’re acting as if our characters who have no idea what is in the future for them. They don’t know about the Civil War, but the readers know how history played out, so it was a challenge for us to convey those emotions. There’s a lot of movement, and that’s what I love about Underground. We’re not just sitting, time is moving!
I just wanted people to be invested in this show. I want it to start conversations. If people are talking, then I’m open to hearing both sides of the critics."
Chris Meloni (August): "I was compelled to keep turning the page, and that’s always a good sign as I’m reading any script. The writers just set up each character’s own world in a very dynamic way. It’s a very difficult way out for the characters. And everything was structured in the storyline. Underground also does such a powerful job of humanizing everyone. Whenever you’re giving some history to the audience in a show like this, it’s our job to really give the characters life. The slave owner is still a person ,and is living under circumstances, but yes he does terrible things. But you still have to, bit by bit, give the audience who he is as a human being. Everyone’s battling.
They even went in and added scenes based off our dynamic and interactions with each other. I think you could not have introduced this story in a more intriguing way. All these scenes are leading up to the Civil War. One of these moments sparked the flame.
To me, the brilliance of the show is that it’s not a full history lesson but the readers are being introduced to provocative characters and their moral dilemmas. We want to draw you back after each episode, and we want to tell great stories. I want people to say “I can believe what I just saw.”
The accomplished writing pair beautifully developed the script together and both serve as executive producers on the project. Here, they discuss what Underground means to them.
Misha Green (Writer, EP): “The first thing we said is that we want to be bold with the storytelling -- visually and musically. We wanted to capture the feeling of that time period perfectly. Characters, for one, we said have to be complex. And we knew we wanted to use contemporary music to help bridge the past and present. Visually, we wanted it to be like a picture from slavery times. We did a lot of research to get ourselves prepared, and we shot it in old cotton mills in New Orleans. Joe and I sat there and challenged ourselves to make it as real as possible, knowing we were going to have a lot of critics. Truth is stranger than fiction that’s all I can tell you. Our research lead us to some stories that moved us both. We always wanted the story and characters to find the readers."
Joe Pokaski (Writer, EP): “It’s not meant to be a short lived, one season show. We have plans for upcoming seasons right after this. I mean around season three, there’s something called the Civil War. So we are in it for the long haul. Underground is a story that just keeps moving. We have a group of slaves that are trying to get 600 miles North, but what happens when they get there? There are seasons upon themselves right there. It’s about getting personal with these characters, and who they represent. We just had a fantastic director and cast who brought this show to a level we can’t even explain. Anthony helped bring our vision to life. We had deep discussions with all the actors throughout the shooting. It was an extremely open environment."
John Legend and Mike Jackson were the driving forces in bringing the perfect soundtrack to Underground. Here, they explain the reason why they chose to bring contemporary music to the show.
John Legend (Music Coordinator, EP): "We went into the creative process with the intention of making sure we connect to the current audience. None of us have been through slavery ourselves, we weren’t there at the time and we didn’t feel what they felt for ourselves. But the thing about great storying is you feel the human connection and the universality. And we wanted the music to help make that happen for all viewers. We worked with Laura Carpman -- and Raphael Saddiq -- who was involved with every piece of music on the show. We would meet every week and have these sessions on how we wanted the show to sound.
I like to say history is important because it provides context to what’s happening now. When you think of racism in America, so much of that was set off by slavery. There was a time when blacks were considered subhuman and it’s in America’s DNA. But we’re trying to help loosen some of that with shows like Underground."
Mike Jackson (EP): “When we reached out to each artist and explained the story to them, they were on board pretty easily. John has solid relationships, and a great reputation, so we owe a lot to him. With humility, John is a respected artist from all genres and really helped get a lot of the songs cleared. "